A Brief Personal and Ministry History
My own call to the ministry of evangelism began when I was very young. From the outset of my life in this ministry I was encouraged and guided by significant mentors.
When I was fourteen, a man named Evon Hedley came to my home cit in Canada. Of medium height and well dressed he looked like a salesman or executive. What he was promoting, however, was our starting a chapter of the Canadian Youth Fellowship, the forerunner of Youth for Christ. That night Evon appointed me as president, assuming because I was tall that I was several years older. He must have wondered afterward if he made a great mistake appointing such a youngster! But he stayed close to me, guided me, encouraged me, sometimes scolded me a bit, sent traveling speakers our way, and included me in leadership gatherings. Well into his 90s Evon is continuing to mentor younger men.
A tall southern evangelist with a thundering voice came to preach at one of our rallies: Billy Graham. I was disappointed that only one young girl came forward seeking assurance of her relationship to Christ. Afterward he put an arm around me and promised to pray for me. He later told his sister in North Carolina about a young man in Canada. So he also became a matchmaker, and later my brother-in-law as Jeanie and I married.
After my seminary years Billy invited me to join his evangelistic team for several months. Those months stretched into thirty years as an associate evangelist preaching around the world. His mentoring was largely two-fold, allowing me to watch closely and learn from his own style of evangelistic communication, and also opening doors of ministry for me and providing encouragement.
My third most significant mentor was also like a spiritual father to me, Bishop Jack Dain, a former missionary and a senior bishop of the Anglican diocese in Sydney, Australia. Bishop Dain was the first executive chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. When in my mid-forties I succeeded him in that role he showed his servant spirit by insisting that he serve as my assistant at Lausanne gatherings, even embarrassing me at times by insisting on carrying my suitcase – he a man twenty years my senior! From Jack I gleaned the wisdom of one who had been through much, learned through much, and prayed through much. When I later went through some dark times he became my advocate and a strong rock to lean on.
Evon and Billy and Jack were concerned for me and not just their own agendas. They cared for me as Paul did Timothy, the protege of whom Paul wrote that he had “a genuine interest in your welfare” (Philippians 2: 20,21). So, remembering what Paul was to him and these mentors were to me, I have wanted to have the mind-set of Timothy: caring for others.
A Refocused Sense of Calling
Over three decades I had the privilege of preaching in many countries, and often to large crowds. But at the same time my great joy, along with seeing people come to faith in Christ, was to meet and encourage younger men and women, to be a friend to them, and to see them emerge into their own calling as leaders.
About the time I turned fifty the arc of my calling changed. In part this came from a realization that a major leadership shift was taking place throughout the Christian world. Leaders who emerged after the Second World War were getting older. A new generation was coming on the scene with fresh new visions.
Jeanie and I also went through a grievous loss, when our son Sandy died during heart surgery at the age of twenty-one. A young man with a heart for God, Sandy was a leader for Christ at his university. His death touched his peers deeply.
Sandy was a very good long distance runner. Once, as he was leading in a mile race his legs gave out and he fell forty yards short of the finish line. He got up, ran on, and fell again. Finally, pulling up to his knees, he crawled across the finish line, and won. The local paper showed him sprawled on the track with the headline, “Prep Runner Lays Heart on the Line.” That determination showed in his heart for God – a passion to press on to know the Lord. So our loss brought to Jeanie and me a strong desire to help other young leaders to run their race for Christ.
Later I remember asking a bishop in Australia who their future bishops might be. He thought a moment, then said, “I can think of a lot of blokes in their thirties, but not many in their forties and fifties.” Some business and political leaders told me the same thing.
It seems there was a whole new generation being raised up, not to be manager of their elders’ visions, but to pursue fresh visions God was giving to them.
Around that time I was leading a meeting of the Lausanne Committee in Oslo, Norway. We were seriously considering convening a second Lausanne congress on world evangelization. But there were a number of problems and the way ahead was not clear.
I suggested we suspend our discussion and spend an hour in prayer asking for guidance. As we prayed Clive Calver, then head of the Evangelical Alliance in England, quoted these words from Isaiah: “Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18,19)
Those words were an “arrow” to my heart. Jeanie and I had been looking for a word from Scripture to confirm the next phase of our calling.
The previous years of evangelism had been fruitful and blessed. But, difficult as it was after many years to leave Billy’s organization, we realized that in our lives one chapter was flowing into another.
- Chapter one had been as a preaching evangelist worldwide.
- Chapter two involved drawing evangelism and mission leaders together in cooperation as chair of the Lausanne movement.
- This new chapter was one of identifying and developing emerging leaders.
Helping young leaders to lead like Jesus
In 1986 we founded Leighton Ford Ministries (LFM) to identify and develop and bring together emerging leaders in evangelism around the world.
We sought counsel from a leadership specialist who had also written on this generational shift. He asked: can you put in one sentence what it is you want to do?
After a moment of reflection these words came to me:
to help young leaders to lead more like Jesus, for Jesus, and to Jesus.
That became the distinctive tagline of Leighton Ford Ministries (with the later addition “and to be led more by Jesus.”)
The Arrow Vision
Around the same time I was asked to speak at the Duke University Divinity School. After my chapel talk there was a time for questions.
“How have you seen Billy Graham change across the years?” someone asked. There had been a series of articles in a publication in which religious leaders related how their minds had changed.
I had not previously been asked that question about my brother-in-law. I stammered a few phrases, and then, again suddenly, the image of an arrow came to mind.
“I think Billy Graham has been like an arrowhead,” I said. “His mission and message are like the point of an arrow – sharp, and clear. Wherever he speaks, whatever the occasion, he is sure to make the gospel clear.
“At the same time he has grown broader like the base of an arrowhead. Across the years I have watched him grow in his understanding of the gospel – how the good news relates to racism, to concern for poverty, for cooperation among Christians, for peace between nations.”
The more I reflected on that metaphor, the more apt it seemed. Some leaders as they age grow broader but flatter. They are exposed to more, they know more, but they lose the sharp, cutting edge of their vision. Others become very, very narrow. They have one theme, one idea. They repeat it constantly until, like strumming on one string, it becomes very tiresome. The best leaders, though, are like arrowheads: they keep that sharp edge of their vision and they grow broader – and like the shaft of an arrowhead, they go deeper.
God’s description of His servant as “a polished arrow” (Isaiah 49:2) also became a formative image of my thinking. Young leaders are to be polished like arrowheads. These arrowheads are not to be mass produced, but hand shaped through personalized attention.
The arrow also becomes a symbol of leadership development. We wished to help young leaders sharpen their vision – like the point of the arrow – and to understand clearly God’s call to them. As Jesus in many ways would ask his disciples, “What do you see?” I developed the habit of asking young potential leaders, “What is your vision?” If the person was not sure, I would say, “If you did have one, what would it be?”
The base of the arrow also has significance: shaping their values. As Jesus would ask his disciples, “Where is your heart?” we need to see that the leader’s vision is carried forward only with solid Christ-like values.
Finally, we were called to help young leaders by sharing their ventures. Like the shaft that helps the arrow fly forward, we need to encourage young leaders to act on the visions God gives. Jesus was constantly pushing his disciples beyond their depth and comfort zones, saying, “Where is your faith?” He also made them venture out. So our task was not to recruit young leaders for our cause and visions, but to stand with them and behind them – to invest “spiritual risk capital” so to speak, and give them a chance to go for the ventures God has put into their hearts.
Sharpening vision. Shaping values. Sharing ventures. This summed up our leadership development process.
From a compelling vision to a realistic practice
When we began Leighton Ford Ministries we had this somewhat unfocused sense of being called to help raise a new generation. But how? We had to feel our way.
I began to keep what I called my “GGTW” list of “guys and gals to watch” – men and women whom I had met and been impressed with their heart for evangelism, and potential for leadership.
Some of them had received scholarships through the Sandy Ford Fund, a fund begun in honor of Sandy to help younger leaders prepare for ministry. Others I met through our ongoing evangelism ministry.
I began to take some of them with me as I traveled, and invited others to come to visit for a day to help sharpen and encourage their own vision. We also began to teach evangelism leadership seminars at various theological schools, and to hold forums for evangelists and church planters.
These were rewarding and worthwhile as “one off” events. But still we were feeling our way.
The voice through a storm
Then God spoke through a storm.
On September 22, 1989, Hurricane Hugo, blasted through our home city of Charlotte like a runaway tractor trailer. One of the most savage storms ever to assault the US mainland, it left a trail of deaths and devastation that cost millions of dollars.
That night, as the center of the hurricane passed, Jeanie and I retreated to the center of our house, and lay holding each other for hours in the middle of the den on the ground floor, hoping the house would not crash in on us. As morning came we peered out at and saw only minor damage to our house. But in our yard we counted twenty-seven trees that had been knocked down. It looked as if it a giant wielding a huge ax had lumbered down our block-long street chopping most of the trees off fifteen feet above the ground.
At 9 a.m. that morning two friends came to our front door, briefcases in hand. They had arrived the night before to take part in a strategic planning session for our fledgling Leighton Ford Ministries. To get to the house they had to wade through branches, tree limbs, and leaves that covered every square foot of our yard. Not an inch of grass could be seen,
Since the hurricane left us with no power or light we aborted our future planning session. I remembered, wryly, the old saw about “the best-laid plans of mice and men” going for naught.
Yet it seemed God had another strategic planning session of his own in mind. The storm that uprooted us reminded me how frail we humans really are when nature howls. As God in effect said to Job, after reminding him of the uncontrollable power of nature, “What do you know?” But there was another voice after the storm.
A few days after Hugo I headed up to a friend’s cabin at a nearby lake to spend a solitary day of prayer and planning.
I spent a long time thinking about the new call I had sensed. In my journal that day I wrote that we wanted “to contribute to a significant advance in the cause of Christ worldwide.”
Three years into the new Leighton Ford Ministries we were still running on two tracks – evangelism, and leadership development. We were trying to discern our central focus. Hugo helped us to get on the main track – to develop leaders called to the task of evangelism.
I questioned myself that day:
What is the vision? What is a “significant advance?
I reviewed the programs we had started, and then I wrote,
I see that I have started to become a programmer and a fund-raiser. Some of this is needed. But I have lost in the last year some of the heart to invest in people. Jesus saw people. Sometimes crowds. Often individuals.
How will we achieve a “significant advance”? Programs and conferences will come and go. People will grow (or diminish) and pass on to others (or not).
The programs and funds are necessary tasks. But I need to start by looking prayerfully until I see the people.
As I waited it seemed that I heard a quiet voice saying,
If you want to make a difference in the world, it will happen not by multiplying programs, but by investing in people.
I read though my GGTW list of “Guys and Gals to Watch” – and that day by the lake wrote down from that list a “first core” – a dozen names of younger leaders from around the world in whom I could invest, and who in turn could mentor others.
Within two years some of them, with a few others, formed what became the original Arrow Group (later to be called the Point Group, like the point of the arrow) – the core of our mentoring groups of younger leaders who meet with me each year. Most of them have since emerged into key positions of leadership in their areas of the world, and most have also started their own leadership mentoring groups.
Hurricane Hugo interrupted our planning session. But as it shook up our street and our plans it also opened me to listen in a deep way to “the voice after the storm.”
Now, looking back, I can understand more clearly how Hugo helped us to get on the main track. That quiet voice was calling us to a new ministry to help younger leaders to lead more like Jesus, and more to him.
Vision and Values
The vision that came after Hugo still needed to be fleshed out. What were the values we wanted to pass on? What would be the marks of leading like Jesus?
Not long after Hugo I was in Toronto, meeting with the Canadian board of our new ministry, and excitedly sharing with them this new vision. They shared my enthusiasm, but then one of them stumped me.
“Tell me,” he said, “what are the values that you want to pass on?”
I was caught short, and a bit embarrassed. While I had a general notion of what leadership development involved I had clearly not thought this through. I stammered out a few general thoughts, but his question stayed with me.
The next day Jeanie and I joined a friend for a cruise across Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls. As I lay that afternoon on the front of his boat I said a silent prayer, asking the Lord for wisdom, and clarity.
Then again that voice. Words came to me, formed in my mind. I knew they were not just my thoughts. They came through me, in my mind, but also from beyond me, words that summed up the values to pass on. They became that day a prayer for emerging leaders who would:
- Have a heart for God
- Love their neighbors and their families
- Lead and serve like Jesus
- Be able to communicate the gospel effectively, with passion, thoughtfulness, creativity, and integrity
- Live humane and holy lives which will make the gospel attractive
- Be aware of their world, alert to their generation
- Act compassionately for the lost and the needy
- Be kingdom-seekers, not empire builders
- Long for the unity of God’s people
- Learn to pray the work
It was almost as if these words were dictated to me as I lay on the front of the boat. I wrote them down exactly as above, and later added some appropriate Scriptural passages.
Those values became in years ahead the framework for our mentoring ministry, and expanded to become the goal and the heart of our leadership formation – to help develop leaders who would be like arrowheads – sharp in vision, like the point of an arrow, broad in knowledge and wisdom, like its breadth, and deep in spirit, like its shaft – our “arrow” vision.
I repeated this vision often to the men and women who entered that program. And at their graduation I would go to each one, lay hands of blessing on their head, call them by name, and say quietly to each one of those phrases
“Ken, be a kingdom seeker …”
“Elizabeth, lead and serve like Jesus …”
“Chris, communicate the gospel with creativity and integrity …”
“Alison, pray the work …”
After the storm, that still voice brought a new focus,
On the lake, it brought clarity to our mission.
And then, as if sensing that my hesitant heart might need confirmation, another signal seemed to come.
As our boat was returning in late afternoon from Niagara Falls to Toronto, I again lay on the front of the boat, reflecting on our trip, and the insights that had come.
My eyes were drawn to the sky.
There was a cloud. Shaped, so it seemed to me, like an arrow, an arrow which intersected what looked like a dove.
Was I seeing things? Hearing things?
Lord, you spoke to your prophets in many ways. Elijah heard the sound of your still, small voice after a great storm. You gave to Isaiah the vision of a “way through the sea …a new thing.” Through him you called your servants to be “polished arrows”, and not to settle for “too small a thing.” Thank you for your voice after the storm, and on the waters. And help me, and all your servants, to keep listening. Amen.
Note: (I later wrote these values down, and added appropriate passages from Scripture).
Have a heart for God
(Deuteronomy 6, Psalm 73, Matthew 22:37, Acts 13:22)
Love their neighbors and their families
(Deuteronomy 6, Luke 10:22ff, Acts 13:22)
Lead and serve like Jesus
(Mark 10:42-45, John 13:13-17)
Be able to communicate the gospel effectively, with passion, thoughtfulness, creativity, and integrity
(2 Corinthians 2:17, 3:5-6, Ephesians 6:19,20, 2 Timothy 4:5, Philemon 6)
Live humane and holy lives which will make the gospel attractive
(Matthew 5:16, 1Timothy 4:12, Titus 2:6-8,14, 1 Peter 2:12)
Be aware of their world, alert to their generation (Acts 13:36)
Act compassionately for the lost and the needy
Be kingdom-seekers, not empire builders
(Matthew 6:33, Philippians 2:3-5f, 2:20,21)
Long for the unity of God’s people
(John 17, Philippians 1:27, 2:1-2, Ephesians 4:3-5)
Learn to pray the work
(Matthew 9:35, Colossians 4:12)
Postscript – an appreciation
Based on this vision and these values, the Leighton Ford Ministries team established the Arrow Leadership Program, with the first Arrow cohort coming together in 1991. When the time came for transition to new leadership , Carson Pue, who himself was an Arrow graduate , and who with Brenda had launched Arrow in Canada, was chosen as the new president. I am deeply grateful to Carson for carrying on the Arrow vision and with his team developing it so fully. As God has guided in the expansion of Arrow around the world I am also thankful for outstanding leaders who have pursued this vision in their own countries. (Leighton Ford)
Leighton Ford continues actively in ministry, with a focus on spiritual direction and mentoring of leaders in evangelism and missions. His current misson statement is: to be
“an artist of the soul and a friend on the journey.” At the website below, you will find his descriptive booklet The Mentoring Community. His widely used Transforming Leadership is available from InterVarsityPress (USA). Sandy: A Heart for God, the story of his son, is also available through IVP as a print-on demand book.
Leighton Ford Ministries
Charlotte, North Carolina USA